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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 10/5/13

Obama's Reverse-Pivot to the Middle East Offers Yet Another Opportunity for "Change"

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However, when Morsi issued decrees granting himself temporary autocratic powers, the Obama administration advocated for reforms that would have entrenched the pre-Arab Spring network of privilege that helps to effectively make Egypt a US-client state. The administration advised that Morsi make cabinet changes and that "the art of politics is to give your adversaries something," a lesson the Obama administration will soon learn as the US government shuts down. The US maintained contact with General  Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel was "impressed" with the former US resident. The White House distanced itself from the coup and continued to advise Morsi to appoint a new Prime Minister. Still, their passive reaction since documents a sustained indifference to authoritarianism in the name of stability and an aversion to any type of actual Arab-world reform representative of its populace's diversity.

Obama's reverse pivot has much to do with perceptions of America's waning influence and the prospect that other powers will step in to fill the void. Any true Middle Eastern alteration, especially if achieved by Islamists moderate or extreme, would threaten an international order increasingly controlled by a global, as opposed to a western, elite. That elite includes the Middle East's own aristocracy. 

Saudi Arabia, for example, a country infuriated by Obama's apparent embracement of the Arab Spring and Brotherhood, pledged $12 billion in aid to Egypt along with Dubai to support the Morsi coup. Then on August 8, as pressure for the suspension of US, EU aid intensified, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of Saudi intelligence and close confidante of the Bush family, appeared in Russia for direct talks with Vladimir Putin. He was no doubt there to discuss Putin's support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the Gulf Cooperation Council's push for a New Middle East modeled on preserving authoritarianism, and potential future inroads for Russian military sales in the event the West pursued a course consistent with human rights. On August 9, Saudi King Abdullah donated $100 million for a US counterterrorism center as Egyptian rhetoric portraying all Islamists as terrorists paved the way for coming massacres. Such emboldened diplomacy led Egypt's military to state on August 18 that its relationship with the US and other western governments was "under review." In a sense, these gestures held the West hostage and forced them to consider the prospects for a returning power struggle along Cold War lines.

Russia would gladly replace Western arms sales in the region and any discussion of a New Middle East, along with the aid, infrastructure investment, and loans that would accompany it, represents a potential threat to American dominance.  Any offloading of the more than one trillion in petrodollar reserves held by Arab sovereign-wealth funds could collapse America's economic imperium. If supported by Russia, in allegiance with Brazil, China, India, or South Africa, an alternative international monetary order could form. OPEC nations could dismember that present order tomorrow by simply removing oil's pricing in US dollar terms. No doubt the realists that hold the actual reign of US power were properly alarmed. Consequently, it is little wonder America accepted the Saudi-induced coup and little wonder Obama no longer wants to "lead from behind" in the Middle East. The ultimate reverberations have already induced alternative solutions in Syria (Assad 'must not go now') and in negotiations with Iran, both allies of Russia.

These international connections highlight the reality that the Egyptian military's putsch represents a neo-fascist trend in international relations, marked by a merger between state and corporate power that relegates government so it serves the needs of an interconnected global elite. That growing movement, typically clothed in the rhetoric of democracy, represents the most serious challenge to the balance democratic nation states inherently offer against transnational powers. Today, from the US in the West to China in the East, national policies are increasingly dictated by globally-minded influences, from multinational corporations, a military-industrial complex, international financial institutions, and other institutions that serve the primary interests (namely immediate profit) of upper-tiered income earners around the world. Under these conditions, the politics of democracy becomes a mere shadow cast on populations by the "interest" of elites. If viewed from this radical perspective, these influences become evident in the Egyptian coup.

The Egyptian Army, with an annual budget of $4 billion, represents the fourteenth largest army in the world. Because the military's influence, in conjunction with the state bureaucracy, extends to every sector of society it is home to some of the most lucrative international contracts. Whether by way of interest rates paid on Egyptian bonds, the sale of weaponry, foreign direct investment, or the import of subsidized American food, Egypt serves as a major stimulus for transnational capitalists. Saudi Arabia, a country General Sissi also served in thoroughly, is exemplar. Saudis not only send all their petrodollars back to Wall Street and the City of London for investment, but they have signed record-breaking arms contracts over recent years.

The late Chalmers Johnson described the Saudi military nexus in his book The Sorrows of Empire (2004), "Vinnell Corp. a Northern Grumman firm in Fairfax, Virginia has had primary responsibility for training the Saudi National Guard and has, constructed, run, written doctrine for, and staffed five Saudi military academies, seven shooting ranges, and a health care system, while training and equipping four Saudi mechanized brigades and five infantry brigades. Saudi Arabia has, in turn, funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into major defense corporations to equip those forces." As in Dubai, Saudi's partner in the Egyptian coup, where the former CEO of Blackwater, the US's foremost private mercenary firm, resides and provides security for the regime, military equipment, and training, focuses on protecting the dictatorship from domestic uprising, particularly pertinent in lieu of the Arab Spring. The $12 billion in aid to Egypt will help temporarily quell an impending economic crisis but their concern with the prospects of an altered US government have nothing to do with private western power. In the weeks following the Egyptian counterrevolution, Saudi Arabia awarded $22.5 billion in infrastructure contracts to three Western-led consortiums for a metro-system in Riyadh.

Obama didn't mention any intent of promoting governments reflecting the collective will of Saudi, Bahraini, or Emirati societies. Today's US-led international military-industrial complex has outgrown what Dwight Eisenhower once referred to as its, "total influence - economic, political, even spiritual." The global elite's influence often trumps sovereign political decisions around the world and runs contrary to public opinion. Factions of that network no doubt gave the go-ahead for the Egyptian coup. Egypt's stock market rose 7% in its initial days. So when Egypt's interim ministry reestablished the national security state by gunning down peaceful protesters with live ammunition, the US president remained effectively silent and the secretary of state issued a vague and implicit message to the Muslim Brotherhood to "step back from the brink." When the military rigs future elections and reestablishes Mubarak-like rule, Egyptian liberals may realize that they effectively backed a counterrevolution and Islamists will learn again that America's rhetoric about democratization cannot be believed.

Another factor of realism weighing on Obama's repivot had to be an awareness that the Muslims Brotherhood's failure in democratic participation will prove a boon to militant, revolutionary Islam of the Al-Qaeda type. The alterations and divisions now percolating in Egypt are similar to a previous era. In the late 1980s political Islamists were gaining ground in Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan, while in Sudan a military coup installed Omar al-Basheer. Then, when the Algerian Salvation Front (FIS) won a surprising victory in first-round parliamentary elections in December, 1991, it sent ripples of caution throughout the international community. Political Islam was on the rise. In early January, 1992, the Algerian military cancelled the elections, banned the FIS, and arrested and tortured hundreds of its supporters. The French backed the coup and the first Bush administration followed suit with tacit approval. Algeria subsequently descended into more than a decade of civil war that took over 100,000 lives. Today, Egypt also rests on the brink of civil discord.

Attacks on Egyptian security forces and police officers are rising. Low-level insurgent violence has increased in the Sinai and has reemerged along the Nile Valley for the first time since the 1990s.

Weapons from Libya and Syria are readily available. A 2008 cable from the US embassy in Cairo released by Wikileaks cited US analysts as claiming the Egyptian armed forces were unable to engage in combat and cited their inability to quell Islamist insurgency in the Sinai as an example. A front for militants  in Egypt would only add to the appeal of groups like Al-Qaeda. In Algeria it was six months after the military cancelled elections before jihadists assassinated the interim prime minister and nine months before the first bombing.  As Secretary of State Clinton put it before leaving her post, the US "has got to have a better strategy... the Arab Spring has ushered in a time when Al-Qaeda is on the rise."

Indeed that is the case. In early August 2013 the Obama administration ordered 19 embassies closed and issued a worldwide travel alert. In Afghanistan, where Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are set to declare victory at the end of 2014, casualties amongst Afghan troops are at all-time highs. The Pakistani Taliban have surged in influence and just killed more than 70 Christians in church allegedly in retaliation for US drone attacks. Three US citizens apparently took part in the recent mall attack in Nairobi. The Shabab claims to have more attacks planned. Meanwhile, jihadists flock to northern Syria from all over the world in ways typical of Afghanistan in the 1980s. To coincide with the September 11th anniversary Al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri directed offshoots to continue focusing on attacks inside America. Intercepted communication between he and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Nasr al-Wuhaishi triggered the embassy closure. Militant Islam will only increase under the reimposition of Mideast authoritarianism. So groups like Al-Qaeda have also proved primary beneficiaries exerting pressure on President Obama to reengage.

Despite these nondemocratic pulls, Obama should utilize his last three years in office to initiate both policy and practice that promotes true reform. Initial efforts could pave the way for sustained engagement under a likely Hillary Clinton presidency. Principled policy that pushes for actual pluralism and political contestation poses an alternative paradigm, something sorely needed to break the tragic status quo. Linking US interests to government reflective of the collective will could create conditions that actuate a cross-pollination in political ideology. This typically embeds secular notions of the separation between religion and state, no matter the oratory of religious parties. Defending free expression and association helps to promote political contestation over violence. These axioms make the democratic experiment attractive to people across the globe and Arabs are no exception.  However, in practice US policy has consistently undermined these principles. It is time to temper America's engagement with realpolitik.

It is also important to recognize that plurality in the Middle East necessitates a role for political Islam. As Olivier Roy described it when Islamists surged in multiple elections in 2012, "Liberalism does not precede democracy; America's founding fathers were not liberal. But once democracy is rooted in institutions and political culture, then the debate on freedom, censorship, social norms and individual rights can be managed through freedom of expression and changes of majorities in parliament. However, there will be no institutionalization of democracy without the Muslim Brothers." That analysis remains true and the US must do its best to promote a return of Islamists to political participation in Egypt in ways that allow them to learn from their mistakes and hold sway.

Since its ascension after the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956, US policy in the Middle East has been marked by a dissonance and anger created by the contradiction between an espousal of Wilsonian idealism and behavior derived solely from self-interests.  Under realpolitik, concrete reality not ideology shapes the world. As Dr. Henry Kissinger described it in his Diplomacy (1994), "One of the principle tasks of statesmanship is to understand which subjects are truly related and can be used to reinforce each other. For the most part, the policymaker has little choice in the matter. Ultimately, it is reality, not policy, that links events. The statesman's role is to recognize the relationship when it does exist - in other words, to create a network of incentives and penalties to produce the most favorable outcome." 50 years of failed diplomacy in the Middle East should document that it is time to realize idealistic notions of promoting government for the people by the people with more than rhetoric and absent the footprint of occupation are truly linked to US peace and prosperity. Therefore it can be argued that crafting networks of incentives and penalties to attain democratic objectives would in fact pave the way for mutually beneficial and realistic outcomes beneficial to all.

The contradiction between US behavior and its expressed belief has helped to cement a cognitive dissonance amongst the primary drivers of US policy that blocks the realization that realism has mostly failed wherever it contradicts so-called American values. 

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Younes Abdullah Muhammed is a Muslim American and Master of International Affairs. He is presently incarcerated in the U.S. Federal Prison system. He is the founder of Islam Policy and can be contacted at
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